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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Maybe, to compensate for the smaller than usual cast, Mr. Berger felt compelled to give Genet's erotic game playing-role reversal drama a drop dead staging twist. Maybe he's just following all the directors who have viewed Genet's second play (1947) as an invitation to rekindle its original shock impact with an idiosyncratic staging. To give just one example, in 1993 David Esbjornson, currently given much credit for making Edward Albee's flop, The Lady From Dubuque worth a second look, tapped into Genet's homosexual subtext by casting it with Charles Bush in his drag queen persona for the Classic Stage.
So what is Berger's concept for putting fresh polish on Genet's fading star as dramatic provocateur? The boudoir setting is elegantly and realistically furnished, courtesy of Liv-Chic a residential and commercial design company. Genet's titular sisters still play their sado-masochistic mistress-servant games while their mistress is away. Their absurdist charades feature more sexual undercurrents than ever and still include their plans for killing the mistress they intermittently hate and adore with a cup of poisoned tea. (The fantasized murder was inspired by the grisly real life case of the Papin sisters who in 1933 murdered their mistress and her daughter). But it's the way that Berger has positioned the audience all around the actors that is his new-new thing, the coup-de-theater with which he hopes to make the viewers feel as if they are right in that boudoir with Solange and Claire as they circle each other and take turns abject subservience to malevolent tyranny.
To achieve this participatory environment, the "regular" orchestra seats of the Theater at St. Clement's that's been Red Bull's home for the last several years, remain unoccupied. Instead viewers sit in folding chairs positioned three rows deep at the long sides of the stage and just one row of tree seats at the short ends.
In the recently reviewed Tribes the stage was also reconfigured for all-around seating. At the Barrow Street theater and for that play this worked extremely well in terms of the physical set-up and, more importantly, to deepen the play's theme. Unfortunately this is not the case here.
Sitting in the second row of the far side, The darkened orchestra section right opposite me proved more than a little distracting. Given the folding chairs used for the new seating, it also made me wish I were sitting in those more comfortable "regular" seats. (Fortunately the play runs just 85 minutes). Most problematically, this immersive seating does little to enhance or deepen the play. That's not to say that there aren't times when it's exciting to have one of the actors seem to be talking directly to you, as if you were in that boudoir and in this game together. For the most part, however, instead of heightening the dramatic impact, it all feels rather gimmicky. Worst of all it makes these already extremely challenging roles more difficult.
Having seen Anna Reeder and Jeanine Serralles and J. Smith-Cameron previously, their names as the maids and their mistress was a major attraction for seeing this production. All three do indeed give committed performances. However, their constantly having to race around to give equal close-up views to the entire audience tends to make this more a case of watching actors at work than really getting caught up in the poisonous tea party unfolding on stage.
The fantastical malevolence of the maids is intensified by their having anonymously indicated to the authorities that madame's lover' was indeed guilty of the crime for which he'd been arrested. Unfortunately, the intriguing but distracting staging inhibits the aura of evil from gaining full altitude. The play does take off when Madame finally arrives. Smith-Cameron looks terrific in her Marilyn Monroe blonde wig and lamé gown (courtesy of Sara Jean Tosetti who provides some other very effective gowns for Serralles). Her all too brief stage time is the best part of this production. It's also when the dialogue, studded as it is with double meanings, is most amusing.
The most interesting aspect of any production of this play is that for all the tricky obscurity, it's not particularly difficult to figure out what's going on. The vicious little repetitive plot is mostly an acting opportunity for the cast. It's too bad that all the stylized emotionalism makes the energetically portrayed characters seem more like flowers that are beyond being restored to their freshly picked bloom — as Genet's play seems to have lost its claim to being a still riveting classic.
Links to other Red Bull production reviews:
The Revengers Tragedy Edward the Second
Women Beware Women
The Witch of Edmonton
Slings & Arrows- view 1st episode free
Anything Goes Cast Recording
Our review of the show
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show